The Social Security Act of 1939 allows for survivor benefits for "the child or legally adopted child of an [insured] individual," and so Karen applied for Social Security survivor benefits for the twins. The United States Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit agreed with her application, holding: "What is before us is a discrete set of circumstances and the narrow question posed by those circumstances: are the undisputed biological children of a deceased wage earner and his widow 'children' within the meaning of the Act? The answer is a resounding 'Yes.'"
The Social Security Administration appealed, and today the Supreme Court of the United States resoundingly said 'No.'" Or, at least, "Look, it's a close call, and the SSA is entitled to the benefit of the doubt." Why? According to Justice Ginsburg, writing for a unanimous Court, a definition which states that a "child" is "the child or legally adopted child of an [insured] individual" is too circular to provide guidance. Instead, she writes, you have to look at other portions of the Act, and the SSA's own regulations interpreting it.
Below the orange gnocchi, I'll explain why, and what lawyers mean when we talk about Chevron.
Those SSA regulations define a "natural child" as someone who meets one of the following criteria: (1) the applicant “could inherit the insured’s personal property as his or her natural child under State inheritance laws”; (2) the applicant is “the insured’s natural child and [his or her parents] went through a ceremony which would have resulted in a valid marriage between them except for a legal impediment”; (3) before death, the insured acknowledged in writing his or her parentage of the applicant, was decreed by a court to be the applicant’s parent, or was ordered by a court to contribute to the applicant’s support; or (4) other evidence shows that the insured is the applicant’s “natural father or mother” and was either living with, or contributing to the support of, the applicant.
And since Robert didn't include "and any future IVF children" in his will, the Court holds, you have to look at the state law provisions on intestacy (i.e., "who does the estate go to if there's no will?"), as well as other Congressional statutes dealing with parentage and benefits:
As the SSA points out, “[i]n 1939, there was no such thing as a scientifically proven biological relationship between a child and a father, which is . . .part of the reason that the word ‘biological’ appears nowhere in the Act.” Notably, a biological parent is not necessarily a child’s parent under law. Ordinarily, “a parent-child relationship does not exist between an adoptee and the adoptee’s genetic parents.” Moreover, laws directly addressing use of today’s assisted reproduction technology do not make biological parentage a universally determinative criterion. See, e.g., Cal. Fam. Code Ann. §7613(b) (West Supp. 2012) (“The donor of semen . . . for use in artificial insemination or in vitro fertilization of a woman other than the donor’s wife is treated in law as if he were not the natural father of a child thereby conceived, unless otherwise agreed to in a writing signed by the donor and the woman prior to the conception of the child.”); Mass. Gen.Laws, ch. 46, §4B (West 2010) (“Any child born to a married woman as a result of artificial insemination with the consent of her husband, shall be considered the legitimate child of the mother and such husband.”). We note, in addition, that marriage does not ever and always make the parentage of a child certain, nor does the absence of marriage necessarily mean that a child’s parentage is uncertain. An unmarried couple can agree that a child is theirs, while the parentage of a child born during a marriage may be uncertain.Moreover, the Court reasons, it's consistent with the Act's purpose to look only at children alive during the father's lifetime:
Finally, it is far from obvious that Karen Capato’s proposed definition—“biological child of married parents"—would cover the posthumously conceived Capato twins. Under Florida law, a marriage ends upon the death of a spouse. If that law applies, rather than a court-declared preemptive federal law, the Capato twins, conceived after the death of their father, would not qualify as “marital” children.
The paths to receipt of benefits laid out in the Act and regulations, we must not forget, proceed from Congress’ perception of the core purpose of the legislation. The aim was not to create a program “generally benefiting needy persons”; it was, more particularly, to “provide . . . dependent members of [a wage earner’s] family with protection against the hardship occasioned by [the] loss of [the insured’s] earnings.” We have recognized that “where state intestacy law provides that a child may take personal property froma father’s estate, it may reasonably be thought that the child will more likely be dependent during the parent’s life and at his death.” Reliance on state intestacy law to determine whois a “child” thus serves the Act’s driving objective.Which leads us to Chevron. Chevron U.S.A., Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, Inc (1984) is the case that makes the modern administrative state possible. What Chevron says is this: When it appears that Congress delegated authority to some executive branch agency to interpret and apply some law—whether due to a deliberate punt or some statutory gap—then as long as the agency's interpretation is a reasonable one, courts shouldn't worry about whether it's the right one, and instead defer to the agency's policymaking expertise:
Judges are not experts in the field, and are not part of either political branch of the Government. Courts must, in some cases, reconcile competing political interests, but not on the basis of the judges' personal policy preferences. In contrast, an agency to which Congress has delegated policymaking responsibilities may, within the limits of that delegation, properly rely upon the incumbent administration's views of wise policy to inform its judgments. While agencies are not directly accountable to the people, the Chief Executive is, and it is entirely appropriate for this political branch of the Government to make such policy choices -- resolving the competing interests which Congress itself either inadvertently did not resolve, or intentionally left to be resolved by the agency charged with the administration of the statute in light of everyday realities.And that's what ends this case:
When a challenge to an agency construction of a statutory provision, fairly conceptualized, really centers on the wisdom of the agency's policy, rather than whether it is a reasonable choice within a gap left open by Congress, the challenge must fail. In such a case, federal judges -- who have no constituency -- have a duty to respect legitimate policy choices made by those who do.
Chevron deference is appropriate “when it appears that Congress delegated authority to the agency generally to make rules carrying the force of law, and that the agency interpretation claiming deference was promulgated in the exercise of that authority.” Here, as already noted, the SSA’s longstanding interpretation is set forth in regulations published after notice-and-comment rulemaking. Congress gave the Commissioner authority to promulgate rules “necessary or appropriate to carry out” the Commissioner’s functions and the relevant statutory provisions. The Commissioner’s regulations are neither “arbitrary or capricious in substance, [n]or manifestly contrary to the statute.” They thus warrant the Court’s approbation.This is a statutory question; if Congress wants to amend the statute to include such children within the benefits of the Act, it can.
Tragic circumstances—Robert Capato’s death before he and his wife could raise a family—gave rise to this case. But the law Congress enacted calls for resolution of Karen Capato’s application for child’s insurance benefits by reference to state intestacy law. We cannot replace that reference by creating a uniform federal rule the statute’s text scarcely supports.